We live on the cusp of a new age in genetic engineering

A CRACK

   A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer   A. Doudna, Samuel H. Sternberg, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Us $28.00 , Pp 304, June 2017, ISBN 978-0544716940

Almost three quarters of a century ago, the inventors of atomic bombs were alarmed by their own invention, and they warned the world about its use. In 2015, Jennifer Doudna called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR – a revolutionary new technology that she helped create – to make heritable changes in human embryos. CRISPR is the cheapest, simplest, most effective way of manipulating DNA ever known; CRISPR may well lead to inventions for cures of HIV, genetic diseases, and some cancers, and will help address food shortages. But even tiniest changes to DNA could have myriad, unforeseeable consequences. Another downside is the intentionally mutating embryos to create better humans. In A Crack in Creation, Jennifer A. Doudna and her fellow researcher Samuel H. Sternberg, argue that enormous responsibility comes with the ability to rewrite the code of life. She shows that, with CRISP, we have effectively taken control of evolution. What will we do with this unfathomable power?

Humans have been reshaping the physical world for millennia, but the effects have never been as dramatic as they are today. Doudna says that industrialization has caused climate change that threatens ecosystems around the globe, and this and other human activities have precipitated a surge in species extinction that is ravaging the diverse populations of creatures with which we share this earth. These transformations have prompted geologists to propose that we rename this era the Anthropocene – the human epoch.

The biological world is also undergoing profound, human-induced changes. For billions of years, life progressed according to Darwin’s theory of evolution; indeed, until recently we were largely at its mercy. Doudna says that scientists have succeeded in bringing this primordial process fully under human control. Using powerful biotechnology tools to tinker with DNA inside living cells, scientists can now manipulate and rationally modify the genetic code that defines every species on the planet, including our own. And with the newest and arguably most effective genetic engineering tool, CRISPR-CAS9 (CRISPR for short), the genome – an organism’s entire DNA content, including all its genes – has become almost as editable as a simple piece of text. Doudna writes, “As long as the genetic code for a particular trait is known, scientists can use CRISPR to insert, edit, or delete the associated gene in virtually any living plant’s or animal’s genome. This process is far simpler and more effective than any other gene-manipulation technology in existence. Practically, overnight, we have found ourselves on the cusp of a new ae in genetic engineering and biological mastery – a revolutionary era in which the possibilities are limited only by our collective imagination.

A Crack in Creation is a fascinating study of human genes and how science has succeeded to manipulate them. Doudna and Sternberg tell us this has placed the human future in our hands. If this may lead to inventions for cures of HIV, genetic diseases, and some cancers, and end food shortages, even tiniest changes to DNA may have unpalatable consequences. Jennifer Doudna has called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the new gene-editing tool CRISPR, that she helped create, to make heritable changes in human embryos.